WALTER CRONXITE on how the housing minister needs to take proper responsibility for creating demand for a charity shelter in his own constituency
It says something about what Croydon has become that the national homelessness charity has today opened its 11th Crisis Skylight centre on Surrey Street in the town centre.
The centre is in a former furniture store, where the council tried, and failed, to go into the pop-up food business with the Surrey Streatery (at some expense to the public). Now Crisis has use of a large part of the building, which finds itself right at the centre of another council project which appears to want to transform a down-to-earth street market into some sort of gentrified shopping “experience”.
The council is spending £1million to fill Surrey Street with bourgeois coffee shops and “artisan” bread, where Surrey Street’s value-for-money “pound a bowl” cries from stall-holders could be ousted by the call of “pound a croissant”.
Perhaps that’s what has been so offensive about so much of the council’s agenda for Surrey Street, since it is seeking to impose its “values” in an area of the town which actually does have some acute social deprivation, including a growing number of homeless.
Despite some resistance in the past from the police and council officials, another charity, Croydon Nightwatch, provides food relief from 9.30pm every night of the year in Queen’s Gardens nearby.
The homeless, mainly single men, show different traits being made up of people ineligible for council housing because they are not part of a wider family unit, who likely have gone through relationship breakdowns, loss of a home through divorce, mental ill-health and alcohol and drug addiction.
They include many former members of the armed forces and some migrants from eastern Europe.
Nightwatch, which has operated in the town for 40 years, observes that their clients “frequently have an institutional background in such places as children’s homes, hospitals, penal institutions, and the armed services. A sizeable minority suffers from drug and alcohol problems but the majority are caught in a poverty trap of benefits and institutional life.
“There are more black British people than in the general population in Croydon – 28 per cent among our clients as against 13 per cent for the borough as a whole. People with the more concealed disabilities such as deafness, poor sight and epilepsy are over-represented. Women represent some 10 per cent of the total but generally remain homeless for a shorter time.”
Possibly the most worrying aspect of Nightwatch’s findings among their clients is how the proportion of those who are in work, and have homes, but cannot afford to feed themselves or their family has been growing. They say, “Over the past few years we have seen more people who have work and somewhere to live, but who cannot afford food after paying for rent and energy. These problems of high rents and fuel costs and low wages are serious and worsening.”
Crisis aims to get people off the street and to bring such people all the way back into the employment market through one-to-one coaching to help people find a home, get employability training, classes and courses and mental health support.
Crisis began working in Croydon 18 months ago, delivering classes and advice sessions in drop-in centres for people living on the streets, hostels and in supported housing projects. Their move to a permanent home will make it easier for homeless people to get the help they need from Crisis. The centre is equipped with facilities ranging from an IT suite, training kitchen and art room, to showers and a laundry.
The need for support is underlined by the more than 1,000 households being formally accepted by Croydon Council as homeless. The amount of rough sleeping in the borough has increased by 24 per cent since 2012-2013.
Croydon Council’s deputy leader Alison Butler was part of a duo of politicians cutting the ribbon at the Crisis Skylight centre today.
Butler can point to significant efforts by the Labour-run council to help those at risk of homelessness. Through its Gateway service the council has in the past year saved 553 families from being without a home and therefore also saved £1.8million for Council Tax-payers who would otherwise have had to pay exorbitant emergency housing costs.
The council is also trying to build 1,000 homes on many small sites. The latter initiative is strongly opposed by the local Conservatives, who dislike new housing in their wards.
The other part of the duo armed with scissors was housing minister Gavin Barwell, the Tory MP for the constituency, Croydon Central, fresh from the eventual publication of his underwhelming White Paper on housing.
It was a curious public appointment for his office to accept on his behalf – every client who walks through the door of Croydon’s Crisis centre represents a failure of Barwell and his Tory-led government’s policies over the past seven years.
Sending a housing minister to a centre for the homeless in his own constituency also opened him up, not for the first time, to the charge of being a blatant hypocrite.
Barwell has tried to deceive over the impact of his government’s policies on the grinding poverty which is forcing thousands of people into homelessness, even resorting to lying about it on national television. His own Department for Communities and Local Government, however, provides factual evidence that this was untrue.
Barwell might now claim – somewhat like at the blundering Donald Trump press conference this week – that “that’s what I was told”, though it seems highly unlikely given the DCLG figures that any civil servant would brief a minister so poorly.
The increase in homelessness in Croydon on Barwell’s watch as the MP since 2010 has been scandalous. Many Croydon families are housed in temporary accommodation across south London, as well as being shipped out to the Medway towns and to Essex, away from family support, Croydon schools and current work in Croydon that often have to be commuted back to every day. This is the bleak Britain of I Daniel Blake which Barwell has helped to create in just six years.
It seems likely that Barwell lacked the political clout to persuade Tory MPs in the wealthy shires of the need for radical action to tackle the housing crisis. It is sad for Croydon to see him having fallen short with the housing White Paper, in what could have been a career making opportunity.
Barwell is also part of a government that is supporting legislation to make it a duty to do what Croydon’s Labour council is already pioneering, to help people before they are evicted. The government has recently increased the amount of money to help with this task, but £61million spread thinly right across the country is still grossly inadequate.
Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes, at the Croydon opening, said, “Croydon has faced significant rises in homelessness in recent years. We are confident that the facilities and the team here at Crisis Skylight Croydon will help remove the barriers many rough sleepers face, building confidence and moving people forward and out of homelessness for good.”
So it is good news that Crisis now has its own proper home in Croydon. Unlike so many of its clients.
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This location does appear to be an unusual one for a homeless shelter. Would be interesting to know the terms of the lease which the “Council” (assumption) has giving to Crisis to provide these services. This would give an indication of how long before they expect any real tangible development of Surrey Street to occur. Such innovation normally occurs when a developer has a surplus site which they anticipate no activity occurring until the medium/long term.
It is good that some concerted effort is being attempted to deal with the needs of those who become vulnerable. This is however the fire engine end of a process and since there does not appear to be any meaningful policy in dealing with homelessness with the supply of new homes can only be seen as a very loose safety net at the end of a long fall.
Homelessness centre? Not a problem! In fact, totally in line with new Govt policy of encouraging a diversity of accommodation for UK Joe and Josephine Public.
Did I not hear Gav recently say on TV ” Not everyone wants to own their own home”. So recycled plastic modular “sleep pods” placed in the street at 8 pm, and picked up at 7am could well be a home sweet home for hard-working Britons. All part of Britain’s vibrant diversity of housing provided–or should it be “envisaged” by the Government. Embrace the creative housing solutions of the future! It could well feature any of us in it!
(incl. Rt Hon Gav Barwell if he loses his slim majority next election.)
Thinking about this, surely it must be a good thing, for many reasons, that the new Crisis Centre is right here in Croydon town centre ? The thought is that — as the Centre is open and on show, and not buried in a back street– we will all be forced to see it, and thus consider why it is necessary. In a sense, it delivers a strong message, that Homelessness is a fact, affecting us all, affecting people like you and me, and affecting Croydon now, and that there is no shame in being homeless. It is a normal thing, but is a problem needing sound, strong and sustained solutions.
I’m sure that the Centre will be well-managed, so I don’t think that the Centre would stop or discourage regeneration of the market area, or will deter the “Hipsterisation” of central Croydon (love it or loathe it), as waves of craft beer outlets and cafes for i-pad wielding 20/30 somethings, rippling ever outwards from Hoxton to Peckham, thence to Norwood and Crystal Palace, finally arrive in Croydon, and engulf Surrey Street.
The proposal put above by another loyal reader of Inside Croydon (no doubt ironically) for plastic pods for single homeless people didn’t really seem too bad to me, and triggered another, possibly practical thought, that the nearby gloomy areas underneath the Croydon flyover could be used for short term housing for single homeless, in ex sea containers, just like Box Park does for cafes. Air quality would need to be assessed, but maybe a 6 to 12 month period spent in a secure and comfortable sea container wouldn’t be a bad idea for a single homeless person.
I must call in and take a look at the new Centre, and make up my own mind, when I next visit Surrey Street for my fruit and veg bargains I’m hoping it might have a sheltered employment cafe attached, that has dishes made with produce from the market !
Sorry Lewis homelessness is not a “normal thing” – it is an “exceptional thing”. Sounds like you have become desensitized to human suffering.
Hi Derek, Thanks for the correction. You’re right–it should be an exception. No, I’m not desensitised, but am actually rather angry about the reasons for homelessness, which partly stems from the political dogma that stopped councils from building new homes, and gave away council properties with the right to buy, thus transfering the properties from the public sector to the private. Liberating maybe for those tenants who stayed put after buying, or bought and moved away to a cheaper area, and a great windfall for some children who helped their elderly parents to buy. Possibly also good for improving the diversity of 100% council estates, but a net loss to the public housing stock.
Without Fair Rent control, the cost of renting a small room in a rabbit hutch now costs so much in London, it is obscene. No wonder that more and more are becoming homeless.
At long last, we all have woken up to the housing crisis, and are aware of the possible ways of reducing it, including converting empty upper floors of shops to become flats, and recycling less dense outer suburban areas by replacing big houses on big plots with new “closes” of houses, or flats.
It’s clear that we need to maximise development on derelict sites but also examine the scope for developing some areas of Metropolitan Open Land. Towns and villages around London, in the Green Belt, can take quite a lot of development by well-designed village and town redevelopment, without eating into open countryside.
There is such backlog, that progress is not going to be instant, but in the meantime, why not have boxpark style housing developments on waste land if it helps give someone a home?.
Thanks for clarifying your thoughts Lewis. I generally agree with everything you say. The idea of using containers as a form of pre-fab temporary housing solution has been around for decades now. Gavin Barwell has been giving the impression that this will be shortly be introduced, but there are no real practical proposals on hand yet. To be frank the policy of the State is about producing development and return gain for vested interests rather than tackling housing need head on. Until the State has a change of philosophical attitude there will be no real substantive innovation of the form you are calling for.